Monday, March 28, 2011

Illustration-a-day: The (non) utility of religious affiliation

This past week a group of mathematicians presented a paper that predicted that organized religion will eventually disappear from nine western democracies. You can read CNN's take here. The mathematicians came to their conclusions after measuring the movement from stated religious affiliation to non-affiliation in census reports over the last one hundred years. It should be noted that claiming to be non-affiliated with a religious denomination is certainly not the same thing as non-belief.

The reasons the mathematicians gave for the move from affiliated to non-affiliated status attempt to speak concerning the basic reasons humans are motivated to join up with religious groups. The first reason they gave is basically, people like to be in the majority. As more and more people dis-affiliate from religious denominations more and more people will dis-affiliate from religious affiliation. Essentially, we're all still in junior high doing what everyone else does.

The second reason provided is more interesting to me. Apparently, we join up with things that bring us personal advantages. The scholars call this the utility motivation. Religious affiliation used to have a utilitarian advantage over non-affiliation. But recent data claims the opposite, non-affiliation now appears to have a utilitarian advantage over religious affiliations in many western democracies. No doubt there was a day when belonging to a denomination brought with it certain benefits for a person in society. In former days, you couldn't do business in the south without belonging to some church. That day is gone. Now affiliation has no utilitarian advantage over non-affiliation. Let me repeat. Religious affiliation has no utilitarian advantage over non-affiliation. It won't help you be a better business person, have a happier family, be a part of a more cooperative society - at least not in the majority population's eyes (For an expanded look at this reality read Darrell Guder's Missional Church).

How is the church to respond? Well, many in the church are attempting to argue for the utilitarian advantages of affiliation. They ratchet up the marketing to promote the usefulness of church. Pastors preach sermons on the usefulness of Christianity for life, marriage, economics, etc. All in an attempt to win back the utilitarian advantage the church once enjoyed. That is one option. It might work. It might not.

Either way it doesn't seem a lot like New Testament preaching that preached not on the usefulness of the gospel, but its truth. Preaching that had little utilitarian advantage (believing the message could get you killed - how's that for non-utilitarian) but could certainly set you free. Maybe, just maybe, losing our utilitarian advantage isn't as bad as it seems. Especially, if it helps us return to the emphasizing our greatest advantage, the truth of our gospel and the power of the Spirit at work in our midst.

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